Text Study for Luke 19:1-10 (Part Five)

It’s difficult to read “tone” in any written account, including the Gospel accounts. The Lukan author gives clues here and there in the text. For example, when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner, all those who saw this “grumbled.” We don’t have to guess at the tone of the indictment. “He [Jesus] has gone in to take lodging with a sinful man” (Luke 19:7, my translation).

It isn’t quite so easy to get the tone of Zacchaeus’ response to this public critique. As I’ve noted, I think we should go with the present tense of the verbs in Luke 19:8. So, this isn’t a promise or a vow. Instead, it’s a personal defense. “Look, one half of what belongs to me, Lord, I’m giving to the poor,” Zacchaeus says, “and if I have extorted something from someone, I am repaying it four times over” (Luke 19:8, my translation).

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

That’s what Zacchaeus says. But how does he say it, and to whom? It’s clear that he makes his personal apologia to Jesus, whom he addresses as “Lord.” His apologia is in response to the criticism from the crowd. I wonder if Zacchaeus is more exasperated than solicitous. He makes this response “standing.” There’s a lot of body language in the Lukan account, and I’ve learned to take that language seriously in a close reading of the text.

As a small man, Zacchaeus perhaps draws himself up to full height. Perhaps he has to stand up (or even on something else) in order to be seen and heard. I can imagine him drawing a full breath and letting it out in frustration. “Look at me!” he says to the crowd (and Jesus). See me for what I am! For crying out loud, I give away half my stuff to poor people. Some of you here are beneficiaries of my generosity. If my contractors take advantage of you, I make repairs four times over. What more do I have to do to get your respect!

That’s what I hear in this text at the moment. Zacchaeus is an outsider in multiple ways. He works with the Roman imperial oppressors. He’s rich and is therefore suspect because of the sources of his wealth. He has new money at the expense of others, so he’s not welcome at all the fancy dinner parties. He’s a short man in a world where Apollo and Adonis provide the ideals of maleness and masculinity. He’s a faithful Jew in a system that expects him to be a selfish scoundrel.

What does he have to do to get their respect? Nothing. Money can’t buy respect. Power doesn’t bring belonging. Zacchaeus does it all right, and he’s still regarded as all wrong. Nothing Zacchaeus does is going to put him right in the eyes of his neighbors. It’s no wonder he explodes in exasperation when those neighbors treat him like crap in front of Jesus.

Could any treatment do more to bring a “high” person low? It’s obvious that Zacchaeus is caught doing his “fan boy” thing as Jesus passes through town. He just wants to see this famous (and perhaps infamous) peasant rabbi who has become something when he should really still be nothing. Zacchaeus would like to just slip through the crowd to get a look, but the crowd’s not having it.

On an impulse, he sprints ahead of the crowd and climbs a tree. As he’s climbing the tree, Jesus notices him. I know it’s presumptuous, but I think the NRSV misses the point in Luke 19:5. The NRSV reads, “When Jesus came to the place…” This place is where Zacchaeus has climbed the tree. So far, so good.

The pronouns in this verse, however, are not quite that clear. The text reads “and as he came upon the place.” The referent of “he” is not certain. It could be Jesus. It could be Zacchaeus. I think the latter is more likely. The Lukan author uses the same preposition, “epi,” as we find in verse four. In verse four, the preposition describes how Zacchaeus climbs the tree. I think verse five should read, “And as he [Zacchaeus] came upon that spot [up in the tree], Jesus looked up and said to him…”

Why does this matter? At precisely the moment when Zacchaeus is the most vulnerable, even though he clearly doesn’t wish to be seen, Jesus notices him and points him out. If Jesus had wished to join in the community ridicule and rejection directed toward Zacchaeus, this would be precisely the moment to do so. Zacchaeus was exposed, alone, and a bit ridiculous in that moment. I think the expected response was that Jesus would pounce on the opportunity to shame this powerful and rich man.

Of course, Jesus does precisely the opposite. He sees and recognizes Zacchaeus in his moment of potential shame. He says, “Come down directly, Zacchaeus. For today it is necessary for me to dwell in your house” (Luke 19:7b, my translation). We have the verb, “dei,” which so often indicates divine necessity and will. This meeting isn’t any chance encounter. God is doing something important, and Jesus is making it happen.

Jesus isn’t merely popping in to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus intends to remain there for a while. The verb is “meno,” which means to dwell or remain. This intention to stick around for a while is part of what bothers the grumblers. The word they use to describe Jesus’ actions is that he is going to “take up lodging with a sinful man” (Luke 19:7c, my translation). The word for “take up lodging” is related to the Greek work for an “inn” or a “guest room” (kataluma). Jesus is making a deep connection.

Twice in our text we get the word “today.” Jesus tells Zacchaeus that it’s necessary for him to dwell in Zacchaeus’ house “today.” In Luke 16:9, we hear that salvation has come this house “today.” We might think ahead to Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” There is no delay, no condition, no hesitation. It’s happening here and now. And what’s happening is an immediate embrace of one who is rejected and excluded.

What does Zacchaeus have to do to get their respect? Nothing – because nothing is going to do it. No matter how many hoops Zacchaeus jumps through, he’s always going to be on the outside looking in. But that’s not the case with Jesus. Jesus’ connection with Zacchaeus comes before his declarations of personal piety and practice. We could speculate, as do some commentators, that Jesus knows this in advance. But that’s not what the text says. Jesus embraces Zacchaeus, and the crowds do not.

It’s clear that this story is about belonging. Part of the punchline is that even Zacchaeus, despised and detested as he is, is “a son of Abraham.” The little Greek word “kai” is doing a lot of work in Luke 19:9. Perhaps it means “also” as the NRSV renders it. But I wonder if the translation shouldn’t be “because even he [Zacchaeus] is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9b, my translation and emphasis). If Zacchaeus, the outsider par excellence, is a child of Abraham, then perhaps there’s hope for us as well.

Jesus concludes by declaring that the Son of Man came to seek out and to save “the lost.” This word in both subject and verb forms appears in the Lost and Found parables of Luke 15 seven times. Remember that those parables are told, according to the Lukan author, in response to the “grumbling” (yes, same verb) of the Pharisees and the scribes. The lost ones in the parables are restored to the flock, the piggy bank, and the family. “Lost” in those contexts means separated from the group. “Found” means restored to the community.

In each of those parables, and in our text, the “finding” produces a party! The one who does the finding is the host of the party. That’s true of the sheep owner, the woman, and the Forgiving Father. It’s true in our text as well. We read, of course, that Zacchaeus comes down out of the tree and joyfully welcomes Jesus (Luke 19:6). And the complaint in verse seven is that Jesus is a guest in Zacchaeus’ house.

“Ironically,” Mittelstadt writes, “the statement of the crowd fails to anticipate Luke’s reversal. Zacchaeus may have entertained and nourished Jesus,” Mittelstadt continues, “but Zacchaeus becomes the guest of Jesus’ hospitality” (page 136). When someone is found, Jesus throws a party, and Jesus is the host. When Jesus comes, salvation arrives and takes up residence. When that happens, the stranger becomes guest. The outsider becomes a member of the family. That’s true no matter what the grumbling crowd may believe.

What do I have to do to get some respect around here? Nothing, Zacchaeus! Nobody has that much money. Inclusion in the family of God comes as a gift of grace, not a commodity that can be purchased. We can play the buying and selling game for a lifetime if we wish. And we’ll never win. No matter how many billions we accumulate, it’s never enough to buy belonging. This is the real celebration of the Reformation – justified by grace through faith.

And that’s why Jesus next tells a parable about one who has resigned from the buying and selling game. If the third servant in the Parable of the Pounds is the hero, this is part of what that parable means. You see, Zacchaeus, the buying and selling game may get you power. But it won’t get you love and respect. Resigning from that game comes with a cost, that’s true. But it’s a cost disciples pay because we’ve already been given everything that truly matters.

References and Resources

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Mittelstadt, Martin William. “Eat, drink, and be merry: A theology of hospitality in Luke-Acts.” Word & World 34, no. 2 (2014): 131-139.

Solevåg, Anna Rebecca. “Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke: Comic Figure, Sinner, and Included” Other”.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 14, no. 2 (2020): 225-240.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Szesnat, Holger. “Bible Study on Economic Justice: Luke 19: 11–28.” (See https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17819/).

Text Study for Luke 15:1-10 (Part Two)

It is clear that the Lukan author provides an editorial framework for the three parables. That framework begins in Luke 15:1-3. The editorial work is not as ham-fisted as the lectionary selection makes it out to be. A helpful reading would probably omit the “Then Jesus said” of verse eleven, since verse three makes that phrase redundant.

In addition, if I kept that phrase I would translate it as, “But he [Jesus] said…” The first two parables do not begin with any sort of conjunction. Instead, there was a certain man who owned a hundred sheep. There was a certain woman who possessed ten drachmas. “But,” the Lukan author continues, “there was a certain man who had two sons.” From the first phrase, the author tells us that this parable is going to be somewhat different from the first two.

That may be of some importance to our interpretation. I think it would have been an obvious change for those who listened to the three parables told in sequence.

Levine and Witherington observe that the first parable “has set up an outline to be repeated in the next two stories: something lost, a search, something found, a celebration. Because the story began with a full complement of one hundred sheep from which one was lost,” they continue, “readers should also expect one out of a full complement to be lost in the second and third stories” (page 414).

If the stories simply behave as expected, however, then the stories are really not very interesting. “Based on the folkloric ‘rule of three,’ Levine and Witherington argue, the first parable “should prime listeners to expect a similar pattern in the second story, and a reversal of the pattern in the third. The parables,” they conclude,” do not disappoint” (ibid). The twist that leaves us hanging on the edges of our seats at the end of the three stories is the (unknown) final response of the older son. That’s what breaks the pattern, challenges us to think, and provides the “punchline” for the series.

The Lukan editorial framework begins with the complaint that Jesus welcomes (receives to himself) sinners and eats together with them. The question may be whether the “insiders” in the Lukan community will accept their role as full partners in the “family business” of following Jesus to do the same. Those insiders have encountered newcomers (latecomers) to the movement. Perhaps some of these newbies brought with them questionable histories and pedigrees. Would they be given a seat at the table or expected to sleep in the bunkhouse?

This is, of course, the perennial question for congregations. But let’s attend to the details for a moment here. The “insider” has become the “outsider” who refuses to come in to the party. We who are church “insiders” – are we in that position now? “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God,” Jesus said in Luke 13:29-30, “Indeed,” he continued, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

To what degree are those verses an interpretive key to Luke’s presentation of the parables of counting?

In each of the three parables in Luke 15, the “finder” takes the initiative. That seems quite straightforward in the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. The owner of the sheep leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes after the lost one. The woman is the only one in the second parable who can take any initiative. After all, coins do not call out to be located.

This perspective may be harder to support in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is the younger son, after all, who has some sort of personal epiphany and heads for home. That being said, it is the father who sees him coming at a distance, who runs to greet him, who embraces him, restores his stuff, and throws a party. In addition, it is the father who comes out of the house during the party to encourage the older son to come in and join the festivities.

The protagonist in the Parable of the Lost Sheep is the sheep owner. The protagonist in the Parable of the Lost Coin is the woman householder. The pattern remains consistent, I think, and the protagonist in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the father. Whether that was the case in Jesus’ original telling may be difficult to discern. But the structure and sequence of the Lukan narrative makes it clear, I believe, that the primary actor in the third parable is the father.

The Lukan author also has no problem with overturning social conventions and structures under the impact of the Good News of Jesus. The Lukan account, after all, is at its heart the story of the Great Reversal. Burke quotes Brendan Byrne’s assertion that the Gospel’s essential purpose is to bring home to people a sense of the extravagance of God’s love. And the Gospel account is filled with characters who perform extravagant gestures in response to God’s salvation (pages 228-229).

Who are these other “prodigals” in the Lukan account? Burke points to the massive and unconditional generosity of the “Good Samaritan” as one example. In addition, there is the extravagant love of the woman who comes to Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. She does not stop expressing her devotion even when she is rebuked. Instead, she is the one who has offered prodigal hospitality to Jesus – precisely what Simon should have done as the host. Her actions demonstrate extravagant gratitude.

Those who accompany Jesus to Jerusalem put their most expensive and valued articles of clothing on the road as he passes. “Such a generous and unexpected action appears rash, hasty and spontaneous in the circumstances,” Burke observes, “but it is a no less appropriate response and expression of devotion to Jesus the Messiah who had come to deliver his people” (page 233).

The clincher in this argument, of course, is Zacchaeus in Luke 19. His promises of reparation are the definition of extravagant and prodigal. Most important, in my estimation, is the conclusion that Jesus brings to this interaction. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” The connection to the parables in Luke 15 is obvious.

Burke offers this summary. “When the father’s behavior in Luke 15 is viewed against this portrayal of the magnanimous actions of others (cf. Luke 9:17) in Luke, his actions are essentially a hermeneutical key for the rest of the Gospel since he is not the only ‘prodigal’ in Luke; rather, the author has a proclivity for portraying the conduct of a number of different people as also being ‘prodigal’ in order to get his point across” (page 234).

Richard Swanson notes that this extravagance does not “count the costs” of loving. This parable, he argues, “is not a bland endorsement of hospitality and welcome, but an acknowledgment of the real risks that go with actual grace.” After all, we don’t know how anyone responds to the father’s extravagant love in the long run. We don’t even know how things might have gone at the breakfast table the morning after the party (although we might have some educated guesses).

On the one hand, it is grace that produces repentance, not the other way around. We see that in our parable. We see it as well in the story of Zacchaeus. Both the younger son and Zacchaeus may have come with mixed motives at best. The younger son may just have been hungry. Zacchaeus may just have been curious. Maybe, he just loved a parade. It was the invitation of grace that made any change of heart and mind conceivable…and worth the risk.

“Perhaps the point is that the risks are as real as the love,” Swanson writes, “And then the point is that the love is indomitable. Perhaps. And indomitable love,” he hopes, “might indeed re-create the world.” As we hear this parable again, the question is there for us. Will God’s indomitable love in Christ re-create us?

I wonder, however, what is the point of the party? In the first two parables, the joy seems to be over the one sinner who repents. We take that, in our individualistic cultural mindset, to be the end of the story. “I once was lost but now and found,” we sing, often with a tear in our eye and a catch in our throat. Popular American Christianity is captivated by the Evangelical assumption that it’s all about the individual sinner who is saved. But I don’t think that’s faithful to the text or helpful to our theology.

Perhaps we can allow the end of this series of parables to inform the beginning. The lost son is found. He was dead and is now alive. There’s a wild party going on to celebrate the event. But there is still a son outside. There is still a son unreconciled. One son has perhaps returned, but the family is still not whole. The story cannot come to a happy ending as long as the community remains fractured.

Celebration wasn’t required because the younger son had come to his senses and repented. Celebration was required because now the broken family could be made whole once again – if the older brother was willing to be part of the celebration. There was no question about the older son’s place in the household. “Son,” the father reminds him, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31, my translation). Of course, now part of the father’s “all” is the younger son.

God will not settle for a partial victory. God is not content with finding most of the family, but not all. If we are thinking practically, we know that the sheep-owner should have settled for the ninety-nine lambs who stayed at home. If we are thinking practically, we know that the women should not have turned her house upside down for a coin that either would turn up on its own or could be replaced. If we are thinking practically, we know that the younger son made his own bed and should be required to lie on it.

But we meet a God who will not stop looking until all have been found, reclaimed, returned, and restored. God wants all of us, and God wants us all.

If we reflect the image and likeness of God in our lives and conduct, then neither will we Jesus followers be satisfied while lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children are still “out there.” I’m not suggesting that we should retain a colonial mindset, where we Christians have something to offer that everyone else should want. No, I think our calling is to understand that we are incomplete, that we are lost as long as we blithely settle for flocks made up of people like us.

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005.

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Luke 10:1-20 (Part One)

The lectionary committee has done violence to our text by omitting Luke 10:12-15. Richard Swanson writes that, in omitting these verses, the lection “omits the allusion that clarifies this scene. Woes are pronounced on cities that have not offered a welcome to Jesus and his movement,” Swanson continues, “but before those woes comes a reference to Sodom, the city that exemplifies the refusal of the duty of hospitality” (page 159).

I suspect that the lectionary folks desired to make the reading a little less “PG-13” in its content by excising the reference to Sodom. In addition, the lectionary folks demonstrate a consistent distaste for verses which show Jesus as angry, vengeful, and pronouncing judgment on others. This editorial concern reinforces the notion that the “God of the Old Testament” is one of vengeance while Jesus’ “God of the New Testament” is one of love and grace and mercy.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

That simple dichotomy is inaccurate, uncomplicated, and does not respect the authority and integrity of the text. Levine and Witherington suggest that verses such as Luke 10:12-15 “should serve as a corrective” for such simplistic and self-serving (from a Christian perspective) interpretations. In a footnote, they observe that “Jesus has more to say about the reality of Hell (which he calls Gehenna) than Paul, or any other NT writer, save John of Patmos in Revelation” (page 281).

These observations make the universalist hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. However, the textual point cannot be disputed. And it should not be minimized by the fiat of lectionary excisions. It’s in the text, and we should deal with it. That’s especially true when the excised text is necessary for an accurate and fulsome interpretation and reading of the text.

That being said, we can take the opportunity to review the nature of “the sin of Sodom” (whether that actually makes it into the message or not). I will quote Levine and Witherington on the matter. “Regarding the sin of Sodom, which prompted the destruction, the prophet Ezekiel makes clear that the Sodomites were destroyed because of a lack of hospitality, an allusion already prompted by the rejection of Jesus in Samaria (9:54), when James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven. Since,” they continue, “Jesus’ statement appears in the context of households either accepting or rejecting the disciples, the concern for Sodom’s hospitality is here also invoked” (page 280).

Swanson offers these comments. In the ancient Mediterranean world, “wanderers are to be treated as family, welcomed and fed.” This is the principle which is violated if and when any of the seventy are refused hospitality. “thus it was that when the citizens of Sodom sought to abuse and humiliate guests in Lot’s house,” Swanson continues, “he offered them his daughters instead. This is inconceivable in any social system,” he concludes, “except one that places the responsibility for hospitality even above one’s responsibility for immediate family” (page 160).

This connection to the destruction of Sodom puts the the members of the “Seventy Sent” in the role of the messengers to Sodom in Genesis 19. Two messengers came to Sodom, and Lot offered them hospitality. Remember that the Seventy Sent are to travel two by two on their mission. That mission, in Genesis 19, is to offer rescue to those will accept the news of Sodom’s impending destruction. We can see that mission of rescue described in Genesis 19:12. The messengers urgently inquire about the extent of Lot’s family and community. They should get out while the getting is good.

Of course, the two messengers will also bring destruction to Sodom, but not before those who want the rescue have been saved. Swanson’s contention that the omitted verses are critical to our interpretation bear fruit now. The Seventy Sent bear a message of eschatological urgency. The time for “harvest” has drawn near. The message of rescue from destruction is carried by the missionaries and enacted in their healing and preaching. There is still time to respond before the end.

Messengers from Jesus need our welcome. When we include the excised verses in our reading and reflection, I think we get a much more interesting and applicable text for preaching and teaching. If and when someone needs our welcome, we settled folks should pay special attention to what they need and what they say. Of course, that reverses our expectation, especially in our time. We church folks expect to be consumers, not involuntary workers in the hospitality industry. We expect those who bring Jesus’ message to give us something of value before we compensate them with anything approaching hospitality.

Who are those who long for welcome and hospitality in our Christian communities? The mention of Sodom in our text will certainly bring to mind for some in our pews their continuing anxieties and hostilities regarding the welcome, inclusion, and leadership of LGBTQIA+ people in our communities. It should be clear that we cisgender, heterosexual, non-queer people have gotten this all backwards. Those who seek hospitality at our eucharistic table and in our pulpits bring the message from Jesus. If we refuse that hospitality, we find ourselves in the role of Sodom (and all the other villages listed).

That is still shocking to some so-called mainline Christians and many, many Evangelical Christians. It is our refusal of hospitality that is the sin of Sodom. This is old news for many who have been in this struggle for a lifetime and more. But it will continue to be new and shocking information for too many in the pews I have faced over the last forty years.

This can be dangerous work for the messengers, as we can see from the text. It will be worth reading this text as if we are the Seventy Sent, but let’s not jump to that perspective too quickly. Let’s focus on our place, most of the time, as the “home team” rather than the “away team.” What do the messengers bring? They bring first of all the palpable gift of God’s peace to the household. They cure the sick and proclaim the presence of the Reign of God. That presence arrives whether it is welcomed or not (see the end of verse 11).

This could be an opportunity to think about our default assumptions when we deal with newcomers to our worshiping communities. We focus primarily on two things: what we have to “offer” to the newcomers (treating them as church-shopping consumers), and how we can assimilate them into the ways things already are (treating them as potential threats to our status quo — threats that must be neutralized to sustain the stability of the current community). Since these are our default responses and assumptions, it’s no wonder that in many of our communities, newcomers pass through our midst with hardly a notice or ripple.

What if, instead, we would regard newcomers as some of the latest recruits to the Seventy Sent? Those who need our welcome are the ones Jesus sends with important messages. Perhaps that message is information about the needs of the community beyond our walls. Perhaps that message is a challenge to be more responsive to that community and the larger world. Perhaps that message is a new perspective, a new way of doing or seeing things, a new connection to the wider world. Newcomers need our hospitality and bring us news.

I learned in parish ministry to regard newcomers as such messengers. “I wonder,” I often thought to myself, “what new thing the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish among us by sending this new person?” Sometimes that new thing was a creative new opportunity. Sometimes that new thing was a challenge to rethink and revise how we did or viewed something. After all, one of the benefits of being a newcomer is that you don’t know that it can’t be done that way.

Jesus equips the Seventy Sent with power and authority to do just what he commissions them to do. And, as we read in the last part of the text, it works! If we can get ourselves out of the way, newcomers can indeed bring new life and mission into our midst. That will produce change, discomfort, challenge, displacement, and disagreement. That’s a necessary part of the process. But the outcome is another victory in the battle against sin, death, and the devil.

“Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he invites us to walk with him,” Marilyn Salmon writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “His words here speak to every generation of Christian disciples and inspire a sense of urgency about bringing God’s realm near. As we begin,” Salmon concludes, “we are called to examine customs we create to protect our comfort and ease, beginning with the practice of hospitality.”

Well, that’s a start for the week anyway.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Six)

Can a person change? The Lukan author certainly thinks so. Change happens in the Lukan account when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. Repentance – personal change of mind and heart – is the result of encounters with Jesus. Such change is not the precondition for such life-altering interactions. Jesus goes looking for tax collectors and sinners in order to invite them into a new way of living.

John Kilgallen argues that the Pharisees – at least in the Lukan account – shared Jesus’ intention that sinners should repent and find new life. The disagreement was about the most effective and appropriate method. He suggests that the Pharisees, as portrayed in the Gospel accounts, went to great lengths to make sure that the Law was fulfilled – such as washing to the elbows in order to make sure one’s hands were clean. More to our point, they tended to avoid contact with “sinners” in order to impress upon the community the importance of repentance.

Photo by Nicole Michalou on Pexels.com

The assumption of the Pharisees, as described in the Gospel accounts, is that sin could infect the righteous. Thus, the company of sinners should be avoided when possible. “Not only should one not suggest an indifference to the lives of sinners,” Kilgallen writes of the Pharisees, “but one should avoid them lest one fall into their sinfulness. Finally,” he continues, “how best to influence a change in behavior of sinners, if not to avoid them and so make them ever conscious of their sinfulness?” (page 591).

Jesus adopts the opposite strategy. He welcomes tax collectors and sinners and eats with them. Kilgallen notes that this is a narrative concern and focus at least four times in the Lukan account. The concern begins in Luke 5:27-32 with the call of Levi, the tax-collector. Jesus takes the initiative with Levi and calls him to be a follower. Levi gets up, leaves everything, and follows Jesus. In Lukan terms, Levi becomes an ideal disciple.

In response to this gracious call, Levi hosts a large dinner party at his house, apparently with Jesus as the guest of honor. The table was occupied by a large crowd of tax-collectors as well as other people. The Pharisees and their scribes observed this party (from some distance, we can assume) and were complaining to Jesus’ disciples. They asked, “On what basis do you all eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30, my translation). The grammar of the question makes it clear that they want to hear some justification for the unusual strategy.

Jesus tells the Pharisees and their scribes that avoidance is the wrong treatment. A physician wouldn’t do much good for a patient by avoiding contact with that patient. Physicians stay away from those who have no need of treatment. But the tax collectors and sinners need this gracious, personal, direct, and sustained contact with Jesus. “I haven’t come to call the righteous ones,” Jesus concludes, “but rather sinners into repentance” (Luke 5:32, my translation).

In this account, Kilgallen argues, we now have the reason for Jesus’ unusual strategy. We don’t yet have a description of why this mode of “treatment” will work. The next reference in the Lukan account to tax collectors and sinners moves the conversation forward. We find that mention in Luke 7:31-35. On the one hand, Jesus’ opponents have criticized John the Baptist for being too austere. On the other hand, they criticize Jesus for having too much to eat and drink and for being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

Jesus drops a cryptic quip in response. “Wisdom is justified on the basis of all her children” (Luke 7:35, my translation). In other words, the wise person looks at the results, not just at the theory. The quip serves as the lead-in to the forgiveness of the “sinful woman” at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus’ strategy results in repentance and reconciliation on the part of the woman. Simon the Pharisee is left as he is, forgiven little and loving less.

“What Jesus offers now in chap. 7,” Kilgallen writes, “is a proof that his method is justified, for…he points to a number of people who have done what God and Wisdom have asked: they have repented” (page 595-596). So far then, we have the reason for Jesus’ strategy and some general demonstrations of its effectiveness. This takes us to the next mention of tax collectors and sinners – in Luke 15.

The same complaint appears. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responds, in the Lukan account, with the three parables. Kilgallen notes two points in the first two parables. “They show that it is unremitting searching that finds what was lost,” he writes, “not disinterest in or distance from sheep or coin…Moreover,” Kilgallen continues, “finding what was lost leads surely to great joy and celebration. The latter aspect, that of rejoicing over finding what was lost, confirms the value of searching, achieving happiness for going after what was lost till it is found. Indeed,” Kilgallen observes, “one cannot imagine how else the sheep and the coin will be found except by continued searching” (page 596).

The third parable shows the life and death stakes of the seeking and finding. The parable of the Prodigal Son “means only to reinforce what the first two parables had made clear: whatever can produce joy in heaven is worth doing. One cannot prefer not searching after sinners, if one is convinced that such searching is the way,” he argues, “the best and necessary way to produce joy, and life.” Luke 15, then, gives the reason for Jesus’ strategy of welcoming sinners and eating with them. If God is rejoicing, it must be a good thing.

The final installment of the tax collectors and sinners throughline is, of course, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. This time it is an anonymous voice from the crowd that grumbles loudly. “He went along with a sinful man to be a guest!” It’s not just eating and drinking this time. Jesus is staying at the house, taking up lodging for a brief stretch. Jesus has raised the stakes of the interaction even higher.

“For our purposes,” Kilgallen suggests, “the most striking feature we find in this story is the fact that we have been given a clear example of the result that comes from Jesus’ fraternizing with sinners” (page 598). The results of Jesus’ strategy are individual repentance and promises of repair consistent with Old Testament regulations in Exodus 21, Leviticus 6, and Numbers 5. Welcoming (and being welcomed) by tax collectors and sinners and eating with them is what it takes to seek and to save the “lost.”

The criticism from the crowd comes as a reminder that Jesus’ strategy is not the accepted way of dealing with tax collectors and sinners. The result meets this criticism head on. In addition, Zacchaeus didn’t come predisposed or prepared to repent, Kilgallen argues. Instead, he begins with “benevolent curiosity” rather than some expressed desire for repentance. “No,” Kilgallen concludes, “it is only the actual time spent with Jesus that accounts for repentance” (page 598).

Can a person change? The Lukan author certainly thinks so. Change happens in the Lukan account when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. I am reminded of a congregational ministry to, with, and for incarcerated people who are preparing to return to life “in the world.” The ministry revolves around Sunday worship, a communal meal, fellowship, and Bible study. Interested participants are interviewed to orient them to the nature and operation of the ministry. But the one real qualification for attending is whether or not one likes to eat.

I was often struck, when I was involved in that ministry, by the suspicion that such a gracious invitation evoked. The suspicion was understandable. Our guests were coming from a world in which no one ever did anything “for free.” For the first six to eight weeks that the typical guest attended, that guest would ask at least three or four times, “What do you want?” Nothing of value in this world is free, the questioner reasoned. Therefore, we must want something. The trick, they thought, was to figure out what “the catch” was.

There was no “catch.” A few of our guests never caught on to that fact. They tended not to stick with the ministry. But most of the guests had a personal epiphany during that initial time period. These people really don’t want anything from me. “Free” really means free. Grace really is grace. While these people don’t want anything from me, they certainly something for me. What they want for me is a life of wholeness and joy. And that’s it.

Honestly, we didn’t go into this ministry thinking about any of this. We were just trying to help some folks who weren’t getting much help. But, over and over, we got to witness the transforming power of real Grace. Personal change happens when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. In the life of the Church, Jesus uses disciples to seek out people and spend that table time with them.

This is why eucharistic hospitality is really the measure of health and faithfulness in a congregation. Who we welcome to the table and under what “conditions” says everything you need to know about the life of a congregation. That welcome includes our willingness to put that table on legs and wheels and to meet people where they are, at their tables and in their lives. Going out to eat, as Jesus did, removes the last “condition” that might impede our eucharistic welcome.

Grace changes people. That’ll preach.

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.


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